I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
I thank the Minister for State for being here. I appreciate the opportunity that has been given to back bench Deputies like myself to move Private Members' Bills. This very positive reform has come about in recent years.
The purpose of this Bill is to make deliberately ramming a Garda vehicle a specific offence. It applies to a vehicle operated by a member of An Garda Síochána in the course of his or her duties. The aim is to try to reduce the shocking number of rammings. The figures I have been provided with show that from 2010 to 2013, there were 244 incidences of Garda vehicles being rammed. We have seen some very tragic cases where serious injuries and even fatalities have resulted from such incidents, and we need to stop them. We need to stamp this out. I think everybody in the House will agree with me when I say that an attack on the Garda is an attack on everyone. It is an attack on the State and the people of this country. We need to do everything possible to produce as strong a deterrent as possible to eliminate this risk. It is probably idealistic to say we could eliminate it but we certainly need to reduce the possibility of it happening.
At the moment, there is not enough of a deterrent to stop this when it happens more than once a week according to the most recent figures I have. When this is the case, Parliament and we as Members of Parliament need to act to protect members of An Garda Síochána as much as we can. That is what this Bill is about. I appreciate that there are measures in law that address these circumstances, for example, the Non-Fatal Offences Against the Person Act or the Criminal Damage Act. These measures are helpful, but as I pointed out, the figures show that they are not working and are not stopping this from happening. We need to send out a very clear and unequivocal message to perpetrators of such intolerable crime that they will not get away with it, that it is stepping well beyond a line that should never be crossed and that the full rigours of the law will meet them if they do that. This is why I want to see the ethos of this Bill move forward.
If the Bill is not enacted during this 31st Dáil, perhaps the spirit behind it might help to shape some future legislation. Ultimately, it does not matter to me whether it is this Bill or part of another one that is enacted. I just want to see the maximum level of protection extended to our gardaí in the course of their duties. They put their lives on the line day in, day out. Without them our society could descend into complete chaos. Members of An Garda Síochána have a unique role and we need to do as much as we can to protect them. I welcome the fact that the Bill will not be opposed. I want to see the State reacting on this issue.
There are other measures outside of legislative change that would also help to protect gardaí in the course of their duties. For example, in cases where Garda cars are rammed by vehicles, officers would stand a better chance of avoiding injury or worse if those vehicles were reinforced or armoured. I acknowledge the efforts of the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Fitzgerald, in recent times to acquire new, stronger, reinforced vehicles. With the recovering economy and public finances we have a great opportunity to catch up on the lost years of the economic crash. We can try to make this the norm when purchasing Garda vehicles into the future. We should give our gardaí the best possible chance in a vehicle by making it reinforced with armoured glass in certain cases. It will cost more, certainly, but what price can one put on a life and certainly on the lives of those who are trying to protect the citizens of this country from the perpetrators of crime? This needs to be a policy direction that we take as the norm and not the exception.
Ramming cases cause a huge number of lost hours for our gardaí. People have to take time off work because of injury acquired in such instances. Without sounding crass or putting a monetary price on this, it is actually costing the State a huge amount when a garda is injured and has to take leave from work. Of course, the human cost always comes first but, as lawmakers, we also need to consider all the facts. I recently sought figures on the exact extent of the problem and how many hours are lost. I was not able to acquire such figures but, anecdotally, from speaking with members of An Garda Síochána and liaising with those who know what is going on, I am aware that this is a problem. We have an opportunity to address it. I do not want to sound crass by talking about the economic costs but we have to talk about them too. There are huge savings to be made if we take the proper policy approach.
In order to assist gardaí in the course of their duties and reduce the number of cases in which gardaí find themselves pursuing criminals in the countryside or in urban areas, many preventative measures could be put in place to help the overall situation. I spoke in this House a number of weeks ago in respect of strategic locations in rural areas. We could create as much of a deterrent as possible in those areas by strategically locating CCTV cameras. In the case of my own constituency, I referred to the Dingle Peninsula. To get onto the Dingle Peninsula, which has a population of over 10,000 people, one needs to pass either Boolteens Bridge on the south side of the Slieve Mish Mountains, or through Curraheen or Derrymore on the north side. Those are the only ways in or out without taking a boat. There are not too many boats sailing this time of year. Surely those locations are ideal for placing a Garda camera, just to see who is coming and going. It would not be big brother or the State going mad. It would be a simple preventative measure that would help people sleep easier in their beds and give gardaí an extra chance. It would not prevent crime but would create an extra deterrent.
By creating more deterrents and by placing more cogs in the wheel, we will get to a much better place. Similarly, a number of burglaries took place on Valentia Island off south-west Kerry last year. The island has a bridge connecting it to the mainland. There is one way in and one way out. The ferry only operates a couple of times a year and it is not exactly an ideal high-speed getaway mechanism. Why not have cameras on the bridge to see who is coming and going when something occurs? Hopefully, nothing would occur if we had those measures. It is the same with the Beara Peninsula. I see my colleague, Deputy Harrington, is here. He knows the lie of the land there. Leaving Kenmare to get onto Beara from the north side, there is only one road. It is similar throughout the country. There are strategical locations that people need to pass through. The gardaí in each division would be able to identify them easily. It is not a very expensive thing to do with modern technology.
Let us use technology to our advantage. God knows the criminals have been using it to their advantage for long enough. We need to do more in that regard. It would help reduce instances in which gardaí find themselves having to pursue criminals in the countryside, including those who have committed burglaries and other offences. It would be a positive step forward.
We also need to start helping communities to help themselves. While a State-led, top-down approach is very welcome, with more visible and mobile, better-equipped gardaí and more recruits coming through, we also need a ground-up approach. At community level we need to invest more in things like the community alert schemes, with which I am very familiar from my own location at home. Individual homeowners are not currently in a position to be able to afford extra security items like security lighting, cameras in the home, electronic gates or other measures. Maybe we can look at allowing people to write off such items against tax, giving them a rebate or reducing VAT in order to make it more affordable. That would be part of the multi-cogged approach I have spoken of. I have heard other ideas from Deputies in the Chamber that we certainly could implement and that would help the overall situation.
I acknowledge the opportunity to introduce the Bill and thank the Minister of State, Deputy Harris, for attending. During the week, I saw the report which showed that 1,500 staff in the Phoenix Part could be freed up for front-line duties. We need to address that and get those gardaí out onto the front line. We need to consider our approach to the Garda Reserve. Perhaps we can get more people in to do administrative duties through the reserve and thus free up trained, front-line gardaí to get out there and do the jobs they want to do. We should prioritise getting more gardaí out on the beat, visible and mobile.
I noticed figures published recently which show the rates of burglaries per 100,000 in the population. Thankfully, my own county of Kerry was one of the lowest. I was glad to see that. Listening to certain elements in the media and certain public representatives in recent months, one would think it was the wild west and that law and order had completely broken down. As public representatives, we need to be conscious that when we speak we need to be doing so with the public good in mind. We need to be conscious that it frightens people, perhaps unnecessarily, when they hear talk of crime epidemics or waves of crime. We have a responsibility to be objective and to call it as it is without overemphasising matters or frightening people. God knows there are enough things frightening people at present. When there is a problem, it needs to be discussed here but we need balance and for people to approach the issue responsibly. Those who are listening to the debate and who are most tuned in to it are the people who are most vulnerable. I have met many individuals who are living in fear. It is a horrible feeling to be afraid in one's own home. We should not be contributing to that in any way unless it is warranted.
I thank the Ceann Comhairle and welcome the contributions of Members on the Bill. As I said, I want to see the issue addressed and to bring attention to what is obviously a problem, given the figures. Perhaps the Bill and the particular wording of it are not necessarily the way forward, but I want to see the issue addressed somehow. If it can be done through other legislation or if the provisions in my Bill can be incorporated into other legislation, that is fine by me. We have seen many attacks on other members of the emergency services over recent years. Recently, I tried to obtain conviction rates and sentencing information, but it is very difficult to get these figures. The Central Statistics Office does not seem to be able to produce them when required and I have not been able to get them from the Department either.
I acknowledge that there was a Bill some years ago dealing with attacks on members of the emergency services, but where it fell down was perhaps in respect of the mandatory element of sentencing. We must look at the area again and, if we cannot have mandatory sentences, let us consider increasing sentences or providing some other deterrent. Ambulance personnel, the fire brigade and various members of other services have been attacked in various ways in the course of their work, which is not acceptable. As with attacks on gardaí, these are attacks on the State and on every citizen, and that cannot be tolerated. I very much welcome the opportunity to present my Bill and I look forward to hearing the views of the Minister of State.